Review of "Flamebringer" (Heartstone #3) by Elle Katharine White

White, Elle Katharine. Flamebringer. New York: Harper Voyager, 2019.

Paperback | $16.9 USD | INbN-13: 978-0062747983 | 351 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

Flamebringer is the final installment in the Heartstone series, and it’s bittersweet to see it come to an end. It’s also wonderful to marvel at how much development has happened over the course of three books, with book one paying homage to Pride and Prejudice, and the other two books building from there.

Thus, this book is considerably darker than I would’ve expected going in, especially reflecting on the first book. On the one hand, I love that White embraces these epic fantasy stakes, and allows for major consequences and loss, a flaw with many fantasy series where all the important characters survive to the end. But, given the source material, it’s hard not to feel a little betrayed when a character inspired by a beloved major character in a classic is killed off.

But the exploration of the characters and their growth in this one is wonderful, particularly that of the protagonist, Aliza and her husband, Daired, especially as they discover more about his family’s past. One of the moments that really stands out to me is the revelation of the deeper connection between Wydrick and the Daired family, particularly Daired’s own disbelief and shock.

This is a great third installment, and fans of the series and those looking to see characters inspired by beloved classic Austen ones go into a darker, grittier direction will love this.

Review of “Dragonshadow” (Heartstone #2) by Elle Katharine White

White, Elle Katharine. Dragonshadow. New York: Harper Voyager, 2018.

Paperback | $16.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062747969 | 383 pages | Fantasy

4 stars

A direct sequel to what seems like an already-concluded story can be risky, especially if that story is inspired by Pride and Prejudice, which itself has some hit-or-miss sequels. But it appears that Elle Katharine White has managed it, and while the plot itself isn’t necessarily the most engaging now that she isn’t sticking to the frame of Austen’s narrative, there are still things to love about Dragonshadow.

The main thing I enjoyed is seeing more of the world White created, which was one of the standout features of Heartstone. While dragons still feature prominently, I loved getting a wider sense of the scope, including the other creatures, and while many will be familiar to fantasy readers, like trolls and merpeople, they are included in such a fun and unique way.

I also really liked White’s perspective on Aliza and Daired after they’ve gotten together, and how, even though they did come to terms with some of the issues keeping them apart in the prior book, there are still hurdles they are negotiating, especially as Aliza is attempting to adjust to her new role as a Dragonrider’s wife, and him wanting to shield her from it, while she’s determined to be a part of it.

I think fans of the first book who are interested in seeing more of the world and how the major characters progress from the first book will enjoy this one, and would recommend they do so, in spite of any preconceived notions.

Review of “Ayesha at Last” by Uzma Jalaluddin

Jalaluddin, Uzma. Ayesha at Last. 2018. New York: Berkley, 2019.

Paperback | $16.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1984802798 | 351 pages | Contemporary Romance

5 stars

Ayesha at Last is yet another Pride and Prejudice retelling published in 2019, but it is by far my favorite of the three, with both its subtle take on the Austen classic and the way it chooses to handle the issues it does, including arranged marriage, workplace discrimination, and characters defining their identity within a Muslim community in Toronto.

I love that this take allowed for a fresh and unique conflict between the two main characters, and one that led to me learn a lot more about Muslims and the differences in their belief systems that exist. And I found it interesting the way Jalaluddin played with reader expectations, having Khalid, the one raised in Toronto, being more conservative and adopting the very traditional look for the majority of the novel, as well as believing his mother knows what is best, including in marriage, while Ayesha, who lived in India before immigrating following her father’s death, is also religious, but has more progressive ideas, including about marriage.

And while the Elizabeth/Darcy parallels are there, what with them clashing, yet having feelings for each other, and especially that memorable awkward proposal scene (fixed with an adorable letter!), this is one of the ways in which Jalaluddin makes the characters and their relationship truly her own, and I love that.

The other characters also were incredibly fun, the villains being the exception to this, and I like how there was just as much focus on the importance of family in spite of everything as there was on the relationship. I did really want more Zareena, as the hints given about how she fell in love with Iqram were so beautiful, and he doesn’t even appear on the page? That’s a crime.

I really enjoyed this book, and I enjoyed the positive and nuanced perspective that it presents about Muslim and South Asian people/communities, especially when there isn’t a ton of other media (and definitely not many other romances) that are doing the same thing. I would recommend it to all rom-com fans, whether you’re familiar with Pride and Prejudice or not.

Review of “Heartstone” (Heartstone #1) by Elle Katharine White (Throwback)

White, Elle Katharine. Heartstone. New York: Harper Voyager, 2016.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062451941 | 336 pages | Fantasy

5 stars

A mix of preparing to read the second book in preparation for the release of the third (but having forgotten the specifics of this one) and the recent uptick in new Austen retellings in other genres led me to feel the urge to revisit Heartstone. And while I still enjoyed it much more this time around, my recent renewed interest in fantasy, which wasn’t the case so much last time, led to me finding new things to enjoy apart from this new take on the story itself.

One of the things I continue to love is the way the story was adapted to suit the new world, especially in terms of how it deals with the class conflict at the center of the plot. While there are elements While clearly makes her own, I could easily recognize the struggle between the nakla and the Dragon Riders and empathize with them.

The wider world of the story is also incredibly rich with history and lore, ensuring that this is just one adventure with these characters and this world, and that I was even more excited for the succeeding books and how they develop things from there, especially with the creative turn the last few chapters took.

I still very much love this book, and would still recommend this to fans of Austen retellings, especially if they also happen to be fans of epic fantasy.

Review of “Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors” (The Rajes #1) by Sonali Dev

Dev, Sonali. Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors. New York: William Morrow, 2019.

Paperback | $15.99 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0062839053 | 487 pages | Contemporary Romnance

2.5-ish (light 3) stars

Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors excited me, because while I had already come to like, and in some cases, even love Sonali Dev’s writing, I was also curious to see what she would do with this concept of a gender-swapped Pride and Prejudice.

And in that regard, she more or less made it work, stripping the story back to the bare-bones themes and some broader plot elements, as well as sticking in a reference or two. DJ (standing for Darcy James xD) makes a great homage to Elizabeth, having worked his way up from nothing to become a chef, while working to care for his sister, who has a brain tumor. Trisha Raje, a bit of a looser homage to Darcy, is the black sheep of a prominent Indian American family and a neurosurgeon working on Emma’s care.

I love how things progressed from the meet-disaster where they both (of course) make assumptions about each other, to coming to work together on Emma’s care, to things developing beyond that.

This story has much more going on that just the romance, however, and I had mixed feelings about the rest of it. While I did like some of Trisha’s family members, like her siblings and such, I wasn’t a big fan of the way her parents treated her, especially her father, and felt like it could have been addressed much better.

But one of my biggest complaints stems from the translation and execution of a big plot point in the latter half of P&P, and one of the few that really makes an appearance. The premise of the story begins with Yash, Trisha’s brother, beginning a campaign for political office in California, and this leads to some secrets from his past involving a former friend of Trisha’s to be delved into, and it turns out he was essentially sexually assaulted by said “friend.” I feel like it would have been fine if it deviated into hushing this girl up to prevent shame, due to perhaps not being believed, or due to the deepened stigma of being a male victim of sexual assault in general, especially one in his position. But instead, we got this delightful passage:

“Julia Wickham could destroy him and he knew it. No one would care that he’d been the victim, not in today’s climate. The worst part was that if he did get justice, if people did believe him, it could set the progress women were making back a hundred years. He would never want that.” (Dev, 377)

I first saw this passage pointed out in another review on Goodreads and couldn’t believe it, but sure enough, I soon found the passage for myself. And, no, that’s not how feminism or the #MeToo movement is meant to work (extremists aside)!. You literally have cases like the one between Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, where evidence is coming out that proves the exact opposite of what is claimed in this abhorrent passage, and I would think truly compassionate women (and people in general) would both see that men can be victims and women perpetrators of both domestic and sexual violence, without it supposedly “setting women back.”

Unfortunately, this is a case of one misused ingredient ruining the entire formula to an extent for me (to use a food reference, because it’s a major part of this book). As I do like Dev’s writing, I may still check out the other books in the series as they come out, since she has stated her plans to loosely adapt other Austen novels.

Given my feelings about the way sexual assault was discussed, I don’t think I would recommend this to anyone, or if I did, it would be to fans of multicultural romance, with a caveat that there is an incredibly off-color moment which could shape your perceptions of the whole.

Review of “Unmarriageable” by Soniah Kamal

Kamal, Soniah. Unmarriageable. New York: Ballantine Books, 2019.

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-1524799717 | 342 pages | Contemporary/Multicultural/Austen Retelling

5 stars

Unmarriageable captures the perfect balance when it comes to an Austen retelling of conveying the underlying themes in a way that remains recognizable, but also providing something new that means it’s not only worth reading, but it also feels like the author truly got to play with it and make it their own. And the result is not only entertaining, but also incredibly educational and eye-opening.

Kamal goes into the parallels she saw between 19th century English society and modern Pakistani society in her author’s note, thus serving as the inspiration for this book. And it was fascinating to look at some of the double standards and contradictions of Pakistani society, especially concerning women’s education and the way marriage for women by a certain age was stressed much more than for men, and even more hauntingly, with recent news closer to home, the issues concerning sexual freedom and reproductive rights, and even how wealth and privilege gives people more options in that regard.

And even more so than these underlying themes, I love how Kamal translated the characters and their vibrant personalities into this retelling, and even further developed some of the character arcs. I loved the further development as Alys as a feminist in particular, challenging the idea that marriage, particularly marriage without love, is the only option for women, as opposed to having a career. But on the flip side, I was also moved by Sherry and how she managed to get a happy ending in her own way, despite pursuing an arranged marriage.

This is definitely a must-read for Austen fans, especially those who are looking for a new perspective on Pride and Prejudice.

Review of “Mary B: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice” by Katherine J. Chen

Chen, Katherine J. Mary B: An Untold Story of Pride and Prejudice. New York: Random House, 2018. 

Hardcover | $27.00 USD | ISBN-13: 978-0399592218 | 322 pages | Historical Fiction

1.5 stars

I had high-ish hopes for Mary B. While I did not expect it to fully measure up to Austen, given my prior experience with Austen fan fiction, I liked the idea of giving Mary Bennet a chance to shine, which not many other authors of Austen fics had done.

And in terms of making Mary of sympathetic character, Chen succeeds. Her character and indeed elements of the story itself feel Bronte-esque (which is ironic, given Charlotte Bronte’s disdain for Austen’s work), but it was still marginally satisfying to see Mary given her own voice and see her come into her own. I also really enjoyed that she took to writing, and had that been the main focus of the story without some of the other elements, I would have enjoyed this much more.

But the characterizations of almost everyone else is where it falls flat. Split into three parts, the first part covering the timeline of P&P is consistent enough with the source text, but I found it hard to believe some of the developments in parts two and three. Elizabeth is this book’s biggest character assassination, with her marriage to Darcy turning her into a vapid matron who cares for nothing but parties. That on its own would be bad enough for some, but I was willing to give it some benefit of the doubt, were it not compounded by the apparent dissolution of the happy ending for Elizabeth and Darcy, in favor of the most ludicrous pairing ever. The excuse that they found they did not suit each other also makes no sense given the depth of their relationship development over the course of P&P.

While quite a few of the other characters were likewise inconsistent (Colonel Fitzwilliam), or at least so obvious of a caricature that they are impossible to mess up (Mrs. Bennet), there were a few characters who actually benefited from this new perspective. While he is still very flawed, I found seeing through the eyes of someone who didn’t think Mr. Collins was insufferable, albeit temporarily, was an interesting experience, as it helped provide some perspective as to why Mary (and perhaps even Charlotte) would consider him an attractive suitor, aside from financial security. And I also was incredibly touched by the way things evolved for Mary and Lydia’s relationship, especially given that Chen imagines a rather dire fate for Lydia after she becomes Mrs. Wickham.

All in all, this is a very disappointing book. I would not recommend it to other devoted Austen fans. I might recommend it to the more casual fan or to someone who hasn’t read P&P before.

Review/Discussion of “Sanditon” by Jane Austen and “Another Lady”

Austen, Jane and “Another Lady (Marie Dobbs). Sanditon. 1975. New Toark: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1998. ISBN-13: 978-0-684-8432-1. $14.00. 

3-ish stars

One of the worst tragedies is the death of an author with work left unfinished, and Austen had a few such manuscripts, Sanditon being the eleven-chapter fragment of a novel that Austen set aside in the months prior to her death in 1817 (There is one other, The Watsons, written prior to beginning her career as a published author, that has also received a few continuations by later authors). And like the rest of her body of work, and most definitely her published novels, the chapters written by Austen are impeccable, showing her talent as a writer and observer of the human condition. And though it has its drawbacks in that is clearly mostly setup, with the character most scholars and readers (including Dobbs) speculate to be the hero not appearing until the last pages of the fragment, there is clear potential there, with characters that feel familiar with a mix of new ones. For example, Austen introduces the character of Miss Lambe, who represents what life might have been like for some mixed race people in the era.

Where the book begins to drop in quality is, as you might expect, the part where Dobbs takes over. While it is not immeditately obvious if you have not done a lot of research into the fragment and where the cutoff occurs, and the portion written by Dobbs starts off strong, it fails to capture the magic of Austen’s works without borrowing from some of her other novels. There are some bright spots, as we see some of the supporting characters, especially Miss Lambe, get their own happy endings, but, ultimately, it does not compare to what I think we might have gotten from Austen had she lived to see the novel to completion.

 

Review of “Heartstone” by Elle Katharine White

White, Elle Katharine. Heartstone. New York: Harper Voyager, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-06-245194-1. Print List Price: $15.99.

5 stars

I tend to be rather picky when I see books that proclaim their association to Austen, as I tend to judge those very critically. And with the popularity in the last few years of slightly more…shall we say…interesting…variations, that incorporate the supernatural or the fantastical, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I find myself skeptical if these can work, both feeling faithful to the source material, while also adding something fresh and captivating to the “Austen-verse.”

But White’s novel does both. While in many ways to does follow the basic structure of Pride and Prejudice, the characters’ motivations and actions are subtly changed to suit the new setting. And one of my favorite changes is that this version doesn’t have plot points revolving around the ruin of reputations, at least in the sense of slut-shaming, and rank, at least in the sense of nobility isn’t a factor. Instead the main focus is on the elitism of the Dragon Riders, and the Daired family connection to it, and how Julienna’s chances were comprised due to Wydrick jealously maiming her dragon. And Lady Catriona is welcoming toward Aliza when it seems things are headed in the direction of marriage with Daired, and Drakaina is the one who disapproves.